February 23, 2007 - If you haven't heard about this game yet, you must be living under a virtual rock. We covered the release of the demo last month, but to sum things up, you're a cop with constantly evolving superhuman abilities, cleaning up crime in a city overrun by it. Today sees the game released on shelves worldwide, and our Games Editor has had a few days head-start to determine whether the cool premise was backed up by an equally cool game. Here's the scoop.
You're a new recruit to the Agency - the law enforcement agency struggling to keep Pacific City under control. Pacific City is made up of several small islands comprising three large districts, each run by a different large-scale organised crime group, affecting the city with their own distinct flavour of nastiness. The opening words of the narrative sums it up perfectly - "It's all gone to shit." Your mission is to clean up the city, one crime boss at a time. Thankfully, the Agency has some nifty technology at its disposal - the most important being the augmentations your character receives, enabling superhuman abilities that evolve as you progress through the game.
The three areas of the city are run by three rival groups - the thugs of Los Muertos, the mobsters of The Volk, and the brainwashed inductees of the Shai-Gen conglomerate. Before taking on whoever is at the reigns of the operation, you'll need to start small, defeating their henchman one at a time, which affects the group in different ways. Take out the defense expert of the Shai-Gen, and the enemies defending the leaders fortress will be less capable of doing so. Each time you take out a henchman, the Agency recalculates the odds of you winning a battle with the leader.
How does it play? Like every game ever based on the Matrix, or Marvel IP should have. Just starting out, you can jump around 10 feet - and jumping around in a video game hasn't been this fun since Super Mario Bros. When you're airborne, you get this fantastic sensation of brief weightlessness before dropping into free fall. Hit the ground from high enough and you'll cause cracks in the pavement along with a mighty thud. Bad ass. Everything pumps along at an intense speed - even before you've built your characters stamina, and especially so once you have. Capcom take note, Lost Planet would've been infinitely more enjoyable had the protagonist been able to run this fast.
Take over supply points scattered over the city, and then once you die (and you will, countless times) you can "regenerate" at any one of the supply points, thanks to the Agencies' advanced cloning techniques. It's always nice when a game's plot smoothes over the holes in those oh-so-unrealistic game conventions (Lost Planet did this with it's arctic setting, using thermal energy and giving the tired "medipack" convention a rest). Take any weapons you find back to a supply depot and you can then grab one from a supply depot at any time, with full ammo.
What really makes the game shine is just how free you are to do what you want. Your contact at the agency will let you know when you're out of your depth, but you're free to cruise around the entire city at will the moment you step into the game - it's really fun to do this, and remains fun to re-explore each time you increase the maximum height of your jump. You're also free to tackle the missions however you'd like - charge in the front door with guns blazing, or take the time to scope out the surroundings and find a more stealthy approach. You can decide to specialise in whatever skill you'd like early on, or just play and let it all happen...and there's no lousy gym mini-games a la Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas so you'll not be reduced to mere button-tapping once.
Your character has five core abilities that can be advanced: Agility, Strength, Explosives, Firearms and Driving. Once you've maxed them out, you'll be able to perform a number of incredibly neat tricks - scaling massive buildings in a couple of effortless hops, picking up a bus and throwing it at an enemy 150 feet away, and taking enemies out for good with one swift roundhouse to the head. Agility is built by finding the 500 Agility orbs scattered throughout the map, Strength is built by taking out opponents with projectiles or your fists, Driving is built by taking out opponents with a vehicle, or completing races, and the remainder should be self-explanatory. There's also 300 Hidden orbs that give all your stats a boost. I'm perfectly aware this is all old news as far as game mechanics go, but where Crackdown has succeeded is that in a vast majority of circumstances, it doesn't feel like a chore to build your stats - which is handy, as you'll want to be maxed out by the time you even think about taking on the final boss.
Leaping in the air, locking on to a target, and blasting it is incredibly fluid and becomes second nature in no time. Once locked on to a target you can select which area of the target to aim for with the right joystick, and the longer you stay locked on, the more accurate your shots are. You can shoot a persons legs or arms to disable them, or go for the lethal head shot, and when you're aiming at cars you can easily switch your aim to the tyres - it's highly controllable, and a breath of fresh air given some of the horrible implementations of lock-on aiming we've seen in past genre-mates. Indeed, the entire system is so near perfect, we're surprised the main fault wasn't glaringly obvious to designers/testers - in that it's way too easy to lock on to your allies, and even corpses. This would be excusable if you could switch aim with a button press, and friendly fire didn't hurt your allies, but the way things are it's just plain frustrating. Nothing hurts a game more than the feeling of fighting with a camera system or control mechanism, even if it only crops up occasionally.
The driving aspect of the game is great. When you're going flat out in a fast car there is a fantastic sense of speed, and the only cars in the game that handle like shopping trolleys are the ones you'd expect to in real life. You can acquire a car by pulling the passenger out, Grand Theft Auto style, or you can drop in to your headquarters to pick up an Agency super car, SUV or truck - these three vehicles being the most fun to drive, apart from the muscle cars that are easily jacked from the Los Muertos gang. I'm stunned that motorbikes weren't added - they were one of the best enhancements to the Grand Theft Auto series over all its incarnations, and their absence here is disappointing - especially when you think of what the Agency motorbike would have been like.
Unfortunately yet another near perfect game mechanic is tainted, this time by an unusual suspect - the pedestrians. They're absolutely moronic, and won't get out of the way of a police car with sirens blaring - indeed, they'll jump off the footpath onto the road directly into the way a lot of the time. This wouldn't be an issue if you weren't punished for hitting them, but you are, and as a result, driving was the only skill that felt like a chore to me to advance - a real shame. It would've been far better had they stuck with the classic video game "super-pedestrian" - invincible long-jumpers that never fail to leap out of your way.
One major gripe with the gameplay is the horrible AI. Given the massive advancement in graphics over the past ten years, I'm really disappointed that we haven't seen similar leaps in AI. If you're going to make friendly fire damage your allies, either give the player a command that tells them to get out of the way, or give the non-playable characters AI that's smart enough to realise the player is a level four in explosives, isn't holding any weapons that aren't explosive, and that it would be a good idea to give him the room to blast the enemy without taking out everyone else. Given these NPCs are supposed to be agents just like the player, it's odd that they don't keep up with your abilities enough to lend a hand - you won't see them leaping from rooftop to rooftop, or picking up a semi-trailer and throwing it at an enemy 100 meters away, and too often there's been five or six enemies firing at me from an adjacent rooftop, with a squad of five or six agents ten metres away from me, happily watching me get blasted.
As a whole, the package is beautifully presented. The art style is cel-shaded, which is a brave option to take amongst the current climate of graphical powerhouses like Gears of War and Lost Planet, but it's executed well, and meshes with the super hero theme. While it's definitely pretty, the level of detail is not quite there when compared to the aforementioned, but allowances have to be made for a pumping frame rate that rarely skips, and a really impressive draw distance that makes things feel more like a sand-city than a sandbox. The cutscenes, which appear as intelligence updates regarding the henchmen you're up against, are particularly well done - superbly animated, and entertaining enough that I never felt the need to skip them.
What really lets down the presentation is the in-game HUD. It's functional enough, it's just that it looks like crap, particularly the tacometer that appears once you jump into a car. I can't figure out why vital information like health and armour is hidden away in the top left hand corner of the screen, while your less important skill statistics are given more real estate in a more prominent position. What I can figure out, is that when my major complaint with the presentation consists of something so trivial, they've done a pretty damn good job with it.
Everything sounds great - the pop and hiss of an incoming RPG, the thud of hitting the ground after a 100 foot fall, the smack of the butt of your rifle hitting an enemies face, and the roar of your super-car hitting 100 MPH down the main strip. The voice of your contact at the Agency is hilarious, and laden with satire. Having incoming communications like "Pedestrians are a barely tolerable nuisance" or "That music is a clear indication of illegal activity! Get in there and shut that party down!" are an effective comedic interlude to the intense action.
Music only plays when you jump in a car, but you can hear muffled music coming from cars passing by, or nearby clubs which is a nice subtle detail. There's a couple of really nice tunes in here - DJ Krush and Amon Tobin being pleasant surprises to contrast some of the absolute shockers - one in particular from an act that can't decide whether they want to be rock, cheesy trance or club house. Eww. Thankfully you can cycle through the tunes by using the LB and RB buttons, but wasn't the whole deal with hard drives in consoles that we could dump some MP3s on there and stop enduring music that doesn't sit with our tastes?
After around 30 hours of gameplay, I've completed the game on it's easiest difficulty setting, found over 400 of the 500 Agility orbs, about 80 of the 300 Hidden orbs, and my character has maxed stats for everything but driving - for reasons explained earlier. My several failed attempts at beating the last stage, before getting someone to help out over Xbox Live, are a pretty good indication that if you don't have a friend with you, you'll want to take the time to max out your stats before taking it on.
Then there's the plentiful side missions. Rooftop races, which lead the player on foot through intricate paths all over, under and around the city, car races that range from bloody intense to throw-your-controller-at-a-wall frustrating, and car stunts that often require cunning placement of a classic action-game/movie device - the car transporter with its ramp lowered. I've barely scratched the surface of these aspects, but can definitely say they're more enjoyable as a four star agent, twice as enjoyable with a mate, and if you're the anal type who doesn't stop until absolutely everything in the game is complete, you'll be going for yonks before you can claim ownage.
Unfortunately, those of you without Xbox Live Gold, or a mate with an Xbox aren't going to be able to get a piece of co-operative action. Not sure the reasoning behind this - but it doesn't strike me as a technical limitation, as I'd imagine Gears would've pushed the 360 equally hard, and it still coped with split-screen multiplayer. Being able to enlist the help of a friend (or a complete stranger) over Xbox Live when you get stuck is a welcome addition, and infinitely more desirable than having to walk away because you're stuck somewhere, but don't alienate those of us that have friends who still come around for a game.
This is a real shame because, well, it kicks ass. What is already a fun filled title gets twice as good when you're cruising the streets with a buddy. Take on a boss together, show each other where the Hidden orbs you've found are, or cool stuff like the Base Jumping achievement - it's all good. Two people can jump into one car to travel together, which is a nice touch.
The main menu of the game will let you know if any of your friends are currently playing game that you can join, or invite those who aren't into a new game. This is a welcome change to trying to find your friends in ranked Gears of War matches.
The gotcha here is that the netcode performs horribly under even moderately laggy conditions, with constant stuttering affecting everything from your movement to the sound effects. It's particularly cruel, as these symptoms are present even if you're hosting, and it's a little odd when you think back to QuakeWorld, which was right on top of this stuff back in 1996 when 56k modems were all the rage. This wouldn't be too much of an issue if you could avoid players with a bad ping, however when you receive a request to join your game, you can only view the players Gamertag - no ping, not even their Gamercard so you can see where they're from and judge from that...and THAT wouldn't be too much of an issue if you could kick someone off your game without having to quit back to the main menu yourself. Of course, these are minor issues that I'd expect a patch for shortly, you've got enough locals on your friends list, and
Despite suffering widespread pre-release ridicule (the "Halo 3 Beta with free Crackdown game" joke) Crackdown has proven itself as another must-have title entirely of it's own merit, snatching the title of most enjoyable sandbox game from GTA: SA, and finally gifting the world with an enjoyable super-hero game - and lets face it, it was always going to take a developer without a movie/comic license to deliver one, given that licensed games sell no matter how badly they stink, and developers subsequently see making them not stink as a waste of time.
Another exclusive title of this caliber is a huge asset for Microsoft - it puts them far ahead of Sony, and catching up with Nintendo in terms of system sellers, and with their recent strike rate, I'd say it's not long before Microsoft finds themselves another franchise as prolific as Halo. I suspect Crackdown will still be fresh in players minds and hearts when Grand Theft Auto 4 hits on October 16 - giving Rockstar plenty to live up to, and much like Gears of War, Crackdown is absolutely ripe for a sequel, which I'm already looking forward to - regardless of not being done with this one yet.